The origins of the May festivities are lost beyond recall, from early times dance and song has celebrated the coming of spring. The Celtic festival of Beltane was held on the first day of May in Ireland and Scotland, a celebration of the beginning of summer and the return of livestock to open pasture. Beltane is first mentioned in a glossary attributed to Cormac, bishop of Cashel and king of Munster, who was probably killed in 908. Cormac describes how cattle were driven between two bonfires on Beltane as a magical means of protecting them from disease before they were led into summer pastures—a custom still observed in Ireland in the 19th century. Other festivities included Maypole dances and cutting of green boughs and flowers. In early Irish lore a number of events took place on Beltane, which long remained the focus of folk traditions and tales in Ireland, Scotland, and the Isle of Man. Like other pre-Christian Celtic peoples, the Irish divided the year into two main seasons. Winter and the beginning of the year fell on November 1 (Samain) and midyear and summer on May 1 (Beltaine). The Romans observed the last four days in April, and the first of May, in honour of the goddess Flora. An old Roman calendar cited by John Brand (Observations on popular antiquities, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, 1777), mentions that on the 30th of April, the boys go out to seek May-trees, ‘Maii arbores a pueris exquirunter’. May festivals enjoyed a revival in England from at least the middle of the thirteenth century, when Bishop Grosseteste of Lincoln complained to his archdeacons about priests joining in May games. The festivities must have been reasonably well established by the fourteenth century, as in ‘The Knight’s Tale’ by Chaucer for example, the heroine Emelie picks flowers on May Day morning to make a garland for her hair. There is a mention of the May-pole at Cornhill in a poem entitled ‘Chaunce of the Dice’ which has been attributed to Chaucer, but is more likely to be the work of John Lydgate.
The sixteenth-century May festivities were not confined to the first day of May or even the month of May; they might occur in June or even July as well. A constant custom of the festivities was to elect a Lord and Lady of the May who presided over the sports. On the thirtieth of May 1557 there ‘was a goodly May game in Fenchurch-street, with drums, and guns, and pikes; and with the nine worthies who rode, and each of them made his speech, there was also a morrice dance, and an elephant and castle, and the Lord and Lady of the May appearing to make up the show’ (Strype’s Eccles. Mem. vol. iii. cap. 49, p. 377). The Lord of the May, and no doubt his Lady, was decorated with scarves, ribbons, and other fineries. May festivities were recorded by John Stow (Survey of London, 1598, p. 72): ‘In the month of May the citizens of London of all estates, generally in every parish, and in some instances two or three parishes joining together, had their several mayings, and did fetch their may-poles with divers warlike shows; with good archers, morrice-dancers, and other devices for pastime all day long; and towards evening they had stage-plays and bonfires in the streets. These great mayings and may-games were made by the governors and masters of the city, together with the triumphant setting up of the great shaft or principal may-pole in Cornhill before the parish church of Saint Andrew.’ As the pole was higher than the steeple itself, the church was called Saint Andrew Undershaft. Stow also mentions the riot in London on Mayday 1517, which was directed against foreigners, and adds that as a result, the great Mayings and May-games were not after that time ‘so freely used as afore’. A famous contemporary description of May customs were recorded by Philip Stubs (Anatomie of Abuses, 1583): ‘all the young men and maids, old men and wives, ran gadding over night to the woods, groves, hills and mountains, where they spend all night in pleasant pastimes; and in the morning they return bringing with them birch and branches of trees, to deck their assemblies withall … the chiefest jewel they bring from thence is their May-pole, which they bring home with great veneration, as thus. They have twenty or forty yoke of oxen, every ox having a sweet nose-gay of flowers placed on the tip of his horns, and these oxen draw home this May-pole (this stinking idol, rather), which is covered all over with flowers and herbs, bound round about with strings, from the top to the bottom, and sometimes painted with variable colours, with two or three hundred men, women and children following it with great devotion. And thus being reared up, with handkerchiefs and flags hovering on the top, they strew the ground round about, bind green boughs about it, set up summer halls, bowers and arbours hard by it. And then they fall they to dance about it … I have heard it credibly reported by men of great gravity and reputation, that of forty, threescore, or a hundred maids going to the woods over night, there have scarcely the third part of them returned undefiled’. In the Diary of Henry Machyn it is recorded that on the twenty-sixth of May, 1555, there was a goodly May-game at St Martins in the Field, with giant and hobby-horses, morris-dance and other minstrels; and on the third day of June following, a goodly May-game at Westminster, with giants and devils, and three morris-dancers, and many disguised, and the Lord and Lady of the May rode gorgeously, with divers minstrels playing. There was a royal May-game for Henry VIII in 1516, when two hundred men from the King’s guard, dressed in green and under the leadership of a ‘Robin Hood’, led the King and Queen to an arbour erected in the wood beneath Shooters Hill, where they feasted with wine and venison. On their return home the royal party were met by a chariot drawn by five horses, in which sat ‘the Lady May accompanied with Lady Flora,’ who saluted the king with divers songs. A manuscript, apparently written in the reign of Henry VII (Harl. Lib. 69.), concerning a number of men claiming to be the servants of the Lady May, records their promise to be in the royal park at Greenwich day after day, from two o’clock in the afternoon until five, in order to perform the various sports and exercises specified in the agreement: On the fourteenth day of May they engage to meet at a place appointed by the king armed with ‘harneis (probably tilting armour used for jousting), thereunto accustomed, to kepe the fielde, and to run with every commer eight courses’. On the fifteenth the archers took the field to shoot at ‘the standard with flight arrows’. On the sixteenth they held a tournament with ‘swordes rebated to strike with every commer eight strokes’. On the eighteenth they were to be ready to ‘wrestle with all commers all manner of ways’. On the nineteenth they were to enter the field, to fight on foot at the barriers, with spears in their hands and swords rebated by their sides, and with spear and sword to defend their barriers. On the twentieth they were to give additional proof of their strength by casting ‘the barre on foote, and with the arme, bothe heavit and hight’. On the twenty-first they recommenced the exercises, which were to be continued daily, Sundays excepted, through the remaining part of May, and a fortnight in the month of June. In the rural districts the May-game was a simpler affair. The accounts of the chamberlains and churchwardens of Kingston upon Thames for Mayday 1507-36, contain charges for the morris, the Lady, Little John, Robin Hood, and Maid Marian; there are also accounts relating to expenses for the kyngham, and a king and queen are mentioned, probably the king and queen of May; in later accounts the ‘cost of the knygham and Robyn Hode are entered together’. In the latter half of the sixteenth century, there was a decline in the May festivals and games. This was largely the result of disapproval which was led initially by radical Protestants, but also reinforced by the fears of social disorder that had come to be associated with parish gatherings. These were not rigid institutions, but rather a reflection of fickle popular taste.
One of the most famous of all the May Day events still celebrated in the United Kingdom is the Knutsford Royal May Day, celebrated on the first Saturday in May in the small market town of Knutsford in Cheshire. It originated with the Vicar of Knutsford, the Rev. Robert Clowes in 1864, and was deemed ‘Royal’ by the Prince and Princess of Wales when they attended the event in 1887. The event is described in The Origins of Popular Superstitions and Customs (T. Sharper Knowlson, 1890): ‘Early in the morning the streets are ‘sanded’ with brown and white sand in preparation for the procession. All the old characters are present, and many new ones are imported from time to time, whilst children in scores eagerly participate. The procession starts from the Town Hall, and is nearly a mile long; at the end is the uncrowned queen. She is chosen by ballot by the ladies and gentlemen who are responsible for getting up the demonstration, and the crown becomes her own property. Circuiting the town, the procession goes to the Heath, where the actual crowning takes place, followed by games, morris dances, and the usual festivities, all of which are performed before the throne – quite an imposing structure in itself’.
This page contains information found in The Sports and Pastimes of the People of England, Joseph Strutt, William Hone, 1838; The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, Vol. III, Francis James Child, 1965; Trees Woodlands and Western Civilization, Richard Hayman, 2003; The Pictorial History of England, George L. Craik and Charles Mac Farlane, 1839; The official site for Knutsford’s Annual Event; Encyclopædia Britannica; The University of Sheffield, National Fairground Archive.